Understanding the New COVID-19 Variants, and How to Fight Them

America started to breathe a little easier once the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out. But experts warn that we still have a few more laps to run to beat the virus because of new variants entering the race. The Centers for Disease Control says that variants pose a threat that could reverse the improvements we’re seeing nationwide in new cases and hospitalizations.

It’s important to understand the variants, how to beat them, and why it’s critically important to move quickly.

What is a variant?

Mutant viruses sound like Hollywood’s explanation for a zombie apocalypse. Actually, viruses are changing and mutating all the time. It happens when the virus enters our body and makes copies of itself as it spreads from cell to cell. Sometimes the virus makes a mistake and its genetic information is changed slightly as it’s copied. Sometimes those errors cause a disease to fade away; other times, it causes the virus to become more deadly or easily spread.

The coronavirus is no different. Today, researchers are tracking many variants of COVID-19 around the globe, and three have drawn particular attention:

  • U.K. strain, also known as B.1.1.7. 
    • First identified in Britain
    • Appears to spread more easily and quickly
    • 2400 cases in the United States, 23 cases in Utah, 7 in Nevada*
  • Brazil strain or P.1.
    • First seen in Japan among travelers who had visited Brazil
    • May be harder to fight off for people who have immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection
    • 10 cases in the U.S.*
  • South African strain or B.1.351. 
    • Discovered in South Africa in December
    • Appears to be more resistant to vaccines than other strains
    • 53 cases in the U.S., 1 case in Idaho, 1 case in Nevada*

*As of February 28, 2021

Closer to home

In the Intermountain West, health experts have found only a few cases of the U.K. strain. 

Only a fraction of COVID-19 tests are examined to determine the strain, so it’s safe to assume the numbers are actually somewhat higher. 

Do our current vaccines work on these variants?

The two vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States have been tested to see how they work against these variants. “Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines make neutralizing antibodies that cover these variants. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in South Africa and demonstrated it was effective against the strain there. So as of right now, it appears that the vaccine is going to work if these variants were to start circulating at high levels here in the United States,” said Intermountain infectious disease expert Eddie Stenehjem, MD. “Time will tell.”

One advantage of the first vaccines authorized (Pfizer and Moderna) for use in the United States is that they’re built using messenger RNA technology. “That's a platform that's easily changed to develop a booster shot. If we have a new variant circulating, the researchers can easily go into the lab, change the RNA sequence, and then start getting that vaccine out and then potentially be served as a booster shot,” said Dr. Stenehjem.

Game plan for beating the mutants

Luckily, we already know how to beat the variants: Wear a mask, keep our distance, avoid crowded places, practice good hand hygiene, and get the vaccine as soon as it’s your turn. It’s also important to avoid travel so that we don’t give the variants an avenue into a new location. If we don’t give the virus a chance to spread, we prevent more mutations and, potentially, an even more deadly pandemic.

If you’re looking for more information about COVID-19 variants, stick to reliable, up-to-date sources like the CDC, Utah Department of Health, and Intermountain Healthcare. The New York Times has a Variants Tracker that explores the strains with visual aids and more depth.